Come for the Chicken and Biscuits, Stay for the Story
Chef Chris Scott puts history on the menuJackie Summers
March 26, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Jackie Summers digs into the personal and community legacies that inform Top Chef alum Chris Scott's newest venture, Birdman Juke Joint. Scott, who cooked alongside his Top Chef competitors at last year's Juneteenth dinner at the Beard House, may be best known for his highly praised biscuits, but he's hoping to widen his reputation and use his public platform to honor those who came before him.
No less than seven generations of family adorn the walls of Chris Scott’s restaurant. With photographs of his ancestors gazing down on you as you dine, you can’t help but be drawn into his personal narrative. Scott doesn’t just prepare and serve scrumptious meals—he’s also fulfilling an obligation to all the sacrifices that preceded him, with an eye on how his contributions will help pave the way for those who follow.
Perhaps best known for his appearance in the finals of Bravo’s Top Chef (season 15), Scott has taken a decidedly divergent approach to his celebrity. Instead of grandstanding, he’s shifting attention away from himself, recognizing his place somewhere in the middle of a conversation that’s gone on for centuries.
“We’re working on a cookbook,” he explains, “wherein I say: ‘this isn’t about me. Many chefs are deeply vested in telling their stories. Me? I’m just the gatekeeper, telling one story of many. This culture was around long before I was born, and will be here long after I’m gone. My challenge as a chef, as a person of color, is: what story does your food tell, and where are you in the story?’”
Having a historical perspective both drives Scott and keeps him grounded. “A lot of my success is based on luck. I know a lot of fantastic chefs of color,” he says. “But not everyone was afforded the chances I’ve been given.”
Attributing his success to luck is incredibly modest, if mildly inaccurate. With over 30 years in restaurants, Scott earned his stripes as a teenager in the late 1980s working in chain restaurants. He followed with 20 years of fine-dining experience in the Philadelphia area. “Jobs like those will give you an idea of what it’s really like to work in kitchens, structurally,” says Scott. “I was young, I was hungry—I wanted to know the industry. I would work my shift, clock out, go back, and then work the next shift for free, if it meant I could learn.”
Unfortunately, just because you can do something well doesn’t mean you’ll be given the opportunity.
“In European traditions there’s mentorship and apprenticeship. With chefs of color this doesn’t exist. You don’t get ‘bumped up’ because there’s no one to ‘bump’ you,” Scott explains. “This is why I will never forget where I came from. I want to be the guy that elevates others.”
Triumph over struggle sits at the heart of the message Scott wants his cuisine to convey. “Our ancestors were given food that was inedible, which they then turned into delicacies,” he says. “More than that, they took what was given, and figured out how to monetize it.”
This is a direct reference to Scott’s newest venture, Birdman Juke Joint.
“On the plantations, the ‘bird-man’ was the person who tended to the fowl; he built the coop, gave eggs to the community, kept feathers to make blankets and pillows. Legally, black people weren’t allowed to own livestock, but chickens were considered vermin. We took advantage of the loophole,” says Scott. “We owned chickens: raised them, cooked them, figured out how to make them delicious. After emancipation we sold the birds, as well as our aptitude for animal husbandry. For our ancestors this wasn’t just food: it was a path out of poverty. It’s a story of resilience.”
Take, for example, Scott’s famous biscuits. “That recipe has been in my family for seven generations,” he explains. “Bread speaks volumes about a culture. Go anywhere—every culture has its own bread. France? Baguettes. Israel? Laffa. From focaccia to naan to injera to cornbread to biscuits: if you want to know a culture, eat their bread.
“Biscuits and cornbread are more than just biscuits and cornbread. They’re our gift to the world. Bread is love; we feed people love.”
Ask Scott about his legacy and again he defers, removing himself from the equation. “Food has power. I want our food culture to be recognized on a global scale. It’s more than just comfort food,” he says. “[It] needs to be recognized as genuine American cuisine. This food has been around from the beginning. We’ve been here. We’re still rising up. Bird Man is the story of taking what you’ve been given, and making a better life.
“That’s what I’d like to contribute: my story as part of the compendium. It’s been a good journey; it’s becoming my life’s work.”
Jackie Summers is the founder of JackFromBrooklyn Inc., creator of Sorel Liqueur, a food/travel writer based in Brooklyn, and a public speaker on all things anti-oppression.